On Romanticism, Hana Vu Crafts Feminine Pop Paired With an Overwhelming Air of Melancholia

The LA singer-songwriter makes sadness eminently danceable on her sophomore LP.

Music Reviews Hana Vu
On Romanticism, Hana Vu Crafts Feminine Pop Paired With an Overwhelming Air of Melancholia

Hana Vu might have considered calling her sophomore album Down and Dreamy in LA or “Sad and Disillusioned at 22, but the succinct Romanticism has a more hopeful—if not illusory—ring to it. Romanticism calls for unbridled feeling over intellectual analysis, and drama over deliberation. And there’s unbridled, unbearable, uncontainable feelings galore on Vu’s sometimes harrowing second album. Her sense of drama is not all smoke and mirrors. Instead, her carefully crafted feminine pop is loaded with an overwhelming air of melancholia that carries its own emotional drama.

Cascades of Jackson Phillips’ tinkling piano introduce Vu’s echoing, lush croon on opener “Look Alive,” in which she confesses “Now I’m a ghost of who I have been”—a cipher emptied of breath and barren of the spirit of youth. If that sounds like a major downer, adorned with sighing strings of course, then it is tempered by Vu’s proclivity towards buoyant, almost jaunty melodies and a sardonic knack for playing up her own neuroses. On the strummy folk-pop number “Hammer,” Vu sings “I called the doctor, and he said there’s nothing wrong / There is no answer, but I want one anyway.”

While Phoebe Bridgers is the poster girl for what male rock critics love to label “sad girl indie,” Hana Vu is a serious contender for making sadness eminently danceable. “I’m just getting old, I’m just 22,” she laments on “22,” and it has all the pathos and weary resignation of a woman who is 92. To laugh, or cry? Vu seems unsure of the answer herself—sounding eminently more upbeat on the grungy, melodic “Care.” Her sweet falsetto dances atop sharp slithers of fuzzy, electric guitar, sounding almost too delicate for such a scuzzy sound, but the contrast is captivating. Also captivating is the gorgeous ballad “How It Goes,” which haunts with its unfussy bed of acoustic guitar, hinting at a bluegrass, folky melody while Vu progressively loses her mind. “Take a breath, I look around to see there’s nothing left,” she begins, “Lay in bed, I can’t be anywhere but in my head / I’ll take a picture as you walk past me.”

Historically, the Romantic Era over 220 years ago was a retaliation to an increasingly conservative European political environment, championing imagination and spontaneity through music, art and language. Vu’s retaliation is more personal than political, directed at the demands of adulthood and the expectations of a young woman to journey through specific life landmarks once she sails out of her teens. Vu’s 2021 debut album, Public Storage, variously traversed fuzzy, DIY bedroom pop enlivened with shivers of synth and lush melodies. Romanticism could be seen as that debut album’s older sister—a little wiser and more confident in revealing personal stories and observations where Public Storage, like any typical teenager, was determined to shrug off the heaviness of feelings with dismissive one-liners.

Vu was only 17 when she released her first self-produced EP, How Many Times Have You Driven By. The project bristled with distinctly forlorn high school angst, and she has brought fellow Californian DIY pop muso Jackson Phillips (of Day Wave) back on board as co-producer and multi-instrumentalist on Romanticism. Between the two musicians alternating duties on guitar, drums, strings, synths and piano, it has the depth and full-bodied immediacy that could fool you that Vu had a full live band behind her. If the first half of the album is rife with melancholic ballads that are closer to the melancholic folk-pop of Taylor Swift’s Evermore, then the back half of Romanticism heads closer to synth-pop territory. An especially restless disco rhythm pulsates through “Play,” alleviating some of the heavy emotions that threaten to pull you into Vu’s internal abyss.

While Vu has been often likened to Lana Del Rey in the past, that comparison is hard to make on Romanticism. The yearning, sometimes ghostly loveliness of her voice and her swirling synth-string arrangements better parallel Bat For Lashes, Soccer Mommy, Cat Power or—most befittingly—the gloomily romantic, synth-pop of Japanese Breakfast. Trying to classify Hana Vu, or to judge her at all, though, feels almost like a violation of sorts. At only 22, she’s seemingly been judging herself most harshly of all for as long as she’s been conscious. As she reminds us on “Care,” she’s in an endless race from herself and all of us, anyway: “I’m running from this world to the next one, until I can find someone who cares.” If there’s justice in the world, Romanticism will prove to Vu that there are plenty who care for her and her vulnerable, bruised take on synth-folk-pop.

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